As 2013 comes to an end, it is important that we revisit the roll of African continental organisations, such as the African Union, African telecommunication Union and affiliated programs such as NEPAD (New Partnership for Africa’s Development) in the development of ICT infrastructure in Africa.
When NEPAD was adapted by African heads of state in 2001, the NEPAD e-Africa commission was established to spearhead ICT development in Africa. The e-Africa Commission and other bodies have initiated a number of ambitious programs that they have not been able to carry through. We should embrace the challenges faced by the e-Africa Commission as opportunities from which all continental and regional bodies should learn from and approach the development of ICT in Africa differently.
In 2003, the e-Africa commission set-out to develop an all Africa e-schools satellite network to provide Internet connectivity to 600 000 African schools and provide elementary and high school students the much needed electronic skills to prepare them for a world that is increasingly becoming electronic. Despite all the effort, the goals for this initiative were barely achieved. The only progress we are aware of is the completion of a study that was to form the basis of the satellite network and a few pilot projects. It is unlikely that the project will be completed according to original plans.
The e-Africa Commission also announced a proposal to develop a submarine cable along the East Coast of Africa. The East Africa Submarine System (EASSy) was intended to provide better connectivity to the region that had until then relied mostly on foreign-owned satellite systems for all forms of communications to other parts of Africa and the rest of the world. EASSy was to complement the only submarine cable serving Africa then, SAT-3, which connected the countries of West Africa to Europe and the Far East. The announcement of EASSy was followed by the Kigali Protocol of 2006 which was a policy and regulatory framework to expedite the development of ICT infrastructure in Africa. The Kigali Protocol resulted in an ICT policy and regulatory framework within which a NEPAD telecommunication network was to be developed, owned, operated and maintained. Initially developed for countries in Eastern and Southern Africa, the protocol was to be later extended to all African countries after appropriate amendments were made.
The successful completion of the EASSy which was to become a consortium of the e-Africa commission, African telecommunication operators and International investors, would serve as a benchmark of how African and global telecommunication companies would work with regional institutions to develop telecommunication infrastructure in Africa.
Unfortunately, the involvement of the e-Africa Commission in the EASSy project added a bureaucratic dimension that slowed down the progress of the project instead of expediting it. Constant misunderstanding between the e-Africa commission and incumbent telecommunication carriers, led by John Sirah, threatened to derail the project. The privately funded SEACOM project which was conceptualised and planned long after EASSy was announced was completed and commissioned in 2009, before the completion of EASSy. It was not until the e-Africa Commission left the project that progress was finally made and the 10 000km EASSy submarine cable was finally completed in 2010.
We strongly believe that the project could have been developed with fewer hitches had the e-Africa Commission focused on supporting the project with the regulatory framework and behind the scenes advice. We realise now that it was retrogressive for the organisation to insert itself into the EASSy consortium of operators.
By 2007, when the e-Africa Commission had given up active participation in the EASSy project, more ambitious and flamboyant projects were announced. These included the development of high capacity submarine cable systems in the East and West coasts of Africa with the potential of connecting each and every coastal and inland African country, and connecting the continent to the Americas, Europe, Middle East, and India. The submarine component was named UHURUNET, the terrestrial segment, UMOJANET, and the SPV (special purpose vehicle) to manage the development and operation of the network was named BAHARICOM.
In 2009, BAHARICOM collaborated with the ACE ((African Coast to Europe) submarine cable consortium. ACE submarine cable system was to run along the west coast of Africa between France and South Africa and managed by the consortium of 16 operators and administrations headed by France Telecom Orange.
It would appear that the involvement of BAHARICOM or the e-Africa Commission in ACE guaranteed that the cable was going to connect more African countries than was initially planned. The cable was initially planned to extend from Europe to Gabon, but with the collaboration of the e-Africa commission, the cable was going be extended all the way to South Africa, connecting all West African countries along the way.
As far as we are concerned, the e-Africa commission was able to ensure that the submarine cable benefited as many Africans as possible without directly inserting themselves into the consortium as they had done with EASSy. By collaborating with consortia like ACE and others, EASSy can influence the interconnection of all African countries from multiple projects without developing or operating a network.
The e-Africa Commission is not the only continental or regional body that has attempted the development of ambitious ICT infrastructure projects without success. The Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) has also attempted to develop a flamboyant terrestrial fibre optic network through a special purpose vehicle known as COMTEC. The COMTEC project was intended to connect all the 19 countries of COMESA from South Africa to Egypt with high capacity fibre optic cable but it never got off the ground.
We know that the people at the e-Africa Commission and COMESA are very patriotic and had the best interest of Africa when they planned these ICT infrastructure projects. In fact we gave them all our support, cheered them on and in some cases worked closely with them to make sure these initiatives would succeed. We believed in their plans and hoped that the projects would help bridge the wide digital divide between Africa and the rest of the world.
But knowing what we know now, we believe that the idea of continental or regional organisations developing and operating cross border networks may never work. We should really have learnt our lessons from the failure of PANAFTEL, the first attempt at developing an all-African terrestrial network in the 1980s. Please see our article on the history of telecommunications in Africa
for information on PANAFTEL.
The best approach is for continental and regional bodies such as the African Union Information Society Unit, the African Telecommunication Union, the Southern Africa Telecommunication Association (SATA), COMESA and others to support and empower telecommunication operators and infrastructure companies to handle the development and operation of telecommunication infrastructure. Support can come in the form of mobilisation of the much needed project financing, developing regulation frameworks that can help accelerate cross border connectivity and identifying and proposing the completion of missing network links, as the African Union has set out to do.